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The Gathering of Infidels: A Hundred Years of the Rationalist Press Association

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The Gathering of Infidels: A Hundred Years of the Rationalist Press Association, by Bill Cooke

The Gathering of Infidels: A Hundred Years of the Rationalist Press Association, by Bill Cooke

Freethought has a long and complicated history in Britain, a history which few people are even dimly aware of. Most of the figures, organizations, debates, and conflicts have all but disappeared in history, a tremendous loss for freethinkers today because the lives of these people and work of these organizations still have lessons to teach us, not only about freethought generally, but also the relationship between freethought and religion.

Summary

Title: The Gathering of Infidels: A Hundred Years of the Rationalist Press Association
Author: Bill Cooke
Publisher: Prometheus Books
ISBN: 1591021960

Pro:
• Unique work on the history of freethought

Con:
• Weak binding (on my copy, at least)

Description:
• History of the Rationalist Press Association in Britain
• Explores the history, conflicts, and personality of freethought in Britain
• Shows how much continuity there has been — and how little some things have changed

Book Review

One of the earliest freethought organizations in Britain was the Rationalist Press Association, a group which continues to exist today. Founded in 1899 and having predecessors that came earlier, it’s one of the oldest organizations in Britain. The story of how the RPA came to be formed and how it developed over the past 100 years is recounted in Bill Cooke’s The Gathering of Infidels: A Hundred Years of the Rationalist Press Association.

For an organization that is so unknown, it has had a tremendous influence on British society — an influence that probably can’t be calculated. The primary mission of the Rationalist Press Association was, as one might expect, to promote rationalism. The primary means by which the RPA accomplished this goal was through books: lots and lots and lots of cheap books on science, freethought, religious critique, literature, history, and more.

The books produced by the RPA sold in large numbers — far larger numbers than other publishers thought possible. This allowed the RPA to bring radical ideas to the common man throughout Britain; in turn, this helped spread the cause of secularism because it ensured that people were exposed to ideas that political, social, and certainly religious leaders would rather they not hear.

The Gathering of Infidels: A Hundred Years of the Rationalist Press Association, by Bill Cooke

The Gathering of Infidels: A Hundred Years of the Rationalist Press Association, by Bill Cooke

To see the importance of this, one has only to examine the American experience with freethought and secularism during the same period. In the United States, freethought was spread primarily to the elites of society; partially as a consequence of this, secularism never became as popular among the average people as it did in Britain. The RPA even made an effort to send free books to British soldiers in the trenches of World War I, ensuring that even in the terror of trench warfare, a rationalist voice was being heard.

Bill Cooke’s book is the first comprehensive history of the RPA and he was given unprecedented access to the organization’s archives for his research. Much has been lost over the years, but quite a lot remains and Cooke tells a fascinating story about the personalities and conflicts over the past century. A book like this could be very dry, stiff, and boring, but Cooke’s prose is enjoyable. It’s probably not a book for everyone, but if you are interested in the historical development of atheism, agnosticism, freethought, rationalism, and secularism in the West, this is a must-have.

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